It is the winter of 2009. I wake on Christina’s back porch, a temporary refuge now that I’ve left my husband. I am homeless and nearly friendless. This space with its long row of windows only permits the twin bed, a fit like ribs around lungs. There is an ancient, hulking, out-of-tune piano at the foot of my bed and a hand-me-down dresser wedged in the space between the wall and the headboard. I am the central figure in a Russian nesting doll: inside layers of pain and shame, inside jeans and a sweatshirt and socks, inside a borrowed comforter and cat companions. Under the final layer of skin and a few tattoos is me—the quivering, hollow core. An electric radiator exhales feebly. My breath escapes this sarcophagus in frosty plumes, blurring the only three cards on the wall: Season’s Greetings from my employer (Stop & Shop), Happy Holidays from my attorney, and Merry Christmas from Christina.
Reality smacks me as the fog of sleep clears. Wrapped in a blanket, I trudge to the deck where I smoke Pall Malls and watch squirrels spiral up trees. I am a shaking, crying tangle of nerves. The Pall Malls and squirrels help, as does the wine I pour from the spigot on the box of red sometimes before lunch. Every other day when they are not at their dad’s, my seven and eight-year-old girls, Chloe and Cassidy, are here with me. I pull myself together for them. Christina has given them the smaller bedroom, reassembling her kids’ old bunk beds and letting us paint. A window separates my porch bed from their bunks. At night, we open it and read Harry Potter books aloud. Soon, we’ll be in our own apartment. Later, I’ll kick the cigarettes. For now, I am here, incubating until I can stand on my wobbly, new-life legs. For years, I’ll live like a nomad without roots: a one-year lease here, a two-year lease there. Part of me will always live at Christina’s.
Christina and I met at a wake back in 2005. My elderly friend, Virginia, had passed unexpectedly. Heart failure during her ladies’ guild meeting. I was heartbroken. I’d been introduced to Virginia by a mutual friend and we’d hit it off. I became a regular tea drinker in her ramshackle, hilltop house, jammed full of history. The shelves that lined her walls housed her dolls and shoeboxes full of postcards from pen pals. She’d greet me in her entry with a hug, show me the buds on her Christmas cactus, and loan me books from her library. Virgina’s birthday, like mine, was on New Year’s Eve, and she’d call me to exchange birthday wishes. She taught me to knit and I’d thread her sewing needles. We would giggle and lament in her little kitchen, eating cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches from blue willow plates. Knowing Virginia taught me that being friends—being soul mates—has nothing to do with age.
When seeing her in the casket, those once-twinkling eyes forever closed, I wept. I made my way through the line of family. I only knew Emma, Virginia’s sister, but offered tearful smiles to the others. I’m sorry for your loss. One sad-looking woman introduced herself as Christina, Virginia’s niece. I told her I was Janet, a friend. We’d heard of each other. My niece came and painted my door last night. We drank port! We stood clasping hands, sharing sorrow, and vowed to have coffee. A week later, I knocked on the door of her little house, a homemade blueberry pie in my hand.
Christina bustled me into the kitchen and gestured to the postcards and envelopes fanned out on the table. “I’ve been getting these every day,” she said. “Look! From Australia, Florida, Switzerland!” A teapot hummed on a burner.
“Are these from Virginia’s pen pals?”
They were. Christina had written letters, letting friends around the world know Virginia was gone and responses poured in. We talked deep into the night, finding the strange and familiar parts of each other. Soon, our visits were routine. My girls were always eager to accompany me. They took to Christina right away and knew there was always something fun for them at her house: a batch of new kittens, watercolors to paint with, warm apple muffins. Our friendship is old and broken in now, a favorite sweater. We think of each other as an inheritance: each of us something Virginia left for the other.
Four years after our introduction, when my marriage implodes, I sit in my Saturn Astra facing the ball field in a park not far from my marital home. Already, even though my things are still there, crammed into boxes by the basement couch where I’ve been hunkering in lieu of a better plan—sleeping fitfully and worrying about confrontations—I no longer think of the house as home. I need a destination.
“Do you think,” I say into the cell phone, “that the girls and I could stay with you just for a….”
“Yes!” She cuts me off before I can say my spiel about how it won’t be for long. “We can clean out Curt’s old room for the girls. You can use the porch. I need to clean that out anyway.”
I weep with gratitude.
In the days I live at Christina’s, I am a Humpty-Dumpty broken mess, crying in between grocery store work shifts and the two classes I’m enrolled in at the nearby community college. My Baptist background isn’t making these life changes any easier. Their answers are black and white: a vow is a vow. I spent years feeling oppressed in ways that were hard to define, confiding in women who advised me to pray and to submit. I spent countless mornings, head bowed over my open bible and morning coffee, begging God to help me love this angry, king-of-the-castle guy I could never seem to please. I highlighted bible verses. I clung to them with diminished hope. “A wife of noble character, who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” (Proverbs 31:10). Over time, I unraveled. I cried all the time and tried to fix it with antidepressants. Eventually, it became clear the straight and narrow path was one I couldn’t walk, my steps more like the staggering gait of someone failing a roadside sobriety test. I needed connection and acceptance.
With Christina, I found my way out of my prison and landed in her safe, transitional home, but my exit wasn’t graceful. I was ostracized by people who thought the answer was as simple as me needing to “get right with God.” Yes, the catalyst for change was another man—one I’ll eventually regret—but who made my departure possible. Many Bible verses condemn my behavior, but no one saw the tension within my marital home that thickened the air and manifested in a chronic anxiety I now wear like chain mail. When I talk about God being mad or the crushing guilt and judgment I feel, Christina waves a hand and mutters about “prescriptive morality,” or rolls her eyes and says, “I don’t think Jesus is like that.” She reminds me I am no Hester Prynne and we aren’t Puritans. Christina grew up Catholic but has come to her own conclusions summing up her philosophy by saying, “I believe everyone is pretty much doing the best they can.” Her biggest concern rests with whether I am okay, rather than worrying how sinful I am. With her support, I keep getting up and facing life.
Over the next couple years, many things will change. My divorce will be finalized. I’ll have my own little basement apartment up the road where I will lay in bed at night listening to my neighbor’s screeching parrots upstairs. I will have worked out a deal with my maxed-out Visa that was my only means of hiring a lawyer and will be paying my way out of debt. I’ll be thinking about becoming a nurse’s aide. Christina and I will graduate together, both of us getting associate’s degrees. The affair that served as an escape hatch from my previous life will have fizzled away, and I’ll have found some new friends. Ten years later, I’ll have my bachelor’s degree and my own little house. But now I am a seedling springing from a sidewalk crack, digging deep and stretching toward the light.
The road leading to Christina’s house is a roller-coaster: a narrow, fraying ribbon of blacktop that twists and dips, hugging the rusted guardrail beyond which the land drops away sharply, yielding to the rocky waters of the cove. My car knows the way. There is room to park by the crumbling stone wall edging her tiny, flower-filled yard. Gardens: unruly plantings where something is always happening—bleeding hearts that drip rosy blooms in early spring; perennial bulbs that send up daffodils, tulips, and lilies. Window boxes burst with color. Azaleas nestle up against the siding. Starry-yellow forsythia stretch their gangly arms. At the corner of the house, a rose of Sharon transplanted from her mother’s yard. Against the neighbor’s chain-link fence, a line of prickly raspberry bushes I steal handfuls from in late summer.
Around the back of the house, the yard slopes steeply down to the cove. Partway down is a crooked pine tree Chloe planted when we lived there and she came home from third grade with a sapling for Arbor Day. The worn path through the meadow-like grass weaves between tall tulip and beech trees and past an inverted wooden boat with peeling blue paint. It seemed to sink into the earth. Down by the water, there is a firepit Christina dug out and ringed with large rocks. All four seasons, we gather here, brushing the spiders and leaves from the motley collection of lawn chairs to light fires for toasting marshmallows or hot dogs. We watch the water, sparkling like diamonds in the sun and reflecting pink and orange sky at day’s end. Swans and mallards paddle and dabble. Sometimes we go out in kayaks, paddling under the train bridge and into the Thames. We stay by the fire until late, watching the fireflies and jumping at the sound of deer smashing through the brush.
A stone cat perched on the step by the front door dangles beads at Mardi Gras and a holly wreath in December. The door is perpetually unlocked. We are welcome anytime. Whenever I open the door, a cat darts in or out. It’s a small house—two bedrooms, one bath—clearly the home of an artist, a hippie. Original artwork takes up every available bit of wall space—Christina’s, her children’s, my children’s. Books crowd the shelves, many with gold-edged pages and cloth-bound covers. A gas stove hunkers at the center of the house. Over it hangs a mirror in an ornate frame. Forgoing traditional window treatments, Christina has accented her windows with jewel-toned scarves that hang from rods of driftwood. Every surface features candlesticks, frames, plants, and figurines. Things are lovely, quaint, and occasionally creepy, such as her ventriloquist dummy slumped eerily against a one-eyed teddy bear.
Whenever I cross the threshold, memories swirl….How every year on my birthday, we gather for the SYFY Channel’s marathon of The Twilight Zone, snacking and playing a game of “Twilight Zone Bingo” we invented ourselves. How on Thanksgiving, we listen to Alice’s Restaurant and eat stuffing served from a pumpkin shell. How I’ve become part of a motley crew: Christina’s children who come to holidays toting guitars and break into spontaneous performances; her ex-husband with the long silver ponytail and a fondness for crossword puzzles; Ray, the retired submarine captain who always brings a bottle of red; an eclectic mix of friends and family with Christina at the hub. I sometimes gaze around from where I sit, legs tucked under me in a wicker chair, and consider the crowd. We are our own island of misfit toys. A mix of artists and writers and musicians. Deadheads and liberals and rednecks. Intellectual and arthritic. Divorced, widowed, medicated, addicted, renting, working, getting by. Here, I’ve never felt judged or self-conscious.
Often, it’s just Christina and I, burning candles and playing music. Neil Young. Leonard Cohen. The Rolling Stones. Sitting on the deck or at the kitchen table, we tell our secrets and drink our wine. Now, my daughter Cassidy, unexpectedly pregnant and not quite done with her nuclear engineering degree, stays with Christina. Once again, Christina cleaned out a bedroom. Once again, she magically made everything fit, storing things in the basement and letting Cassidy strip off the old wallpaper and paint. In that safe place, Cassidy’s belly swelled as she assembled a crib and knit hats. When the time came, baby Landon’s first ride home was down that snaking road, to a place where he would come to know cats and Jerry Garcia and Harold and his purple crayon.
I go over and watch little Landon on Mondays. Normally, he is good natured: his easy smiles turning his dimples into deep, adorable pits, laughter bubbling up in response to my antics. Last Monday, however, Christina comes home to find me pacing her kitchen with an inconsolable baby.
Christina drops her purse and shrugs off her coat, steps over a cat to get to us. “Wait,” she says excitedly. “He likes the Kinks! Alexa, play ‘Pictures in the Sand’!” Christina dances around us, singing the lyrics and catching Landon’s attention.
“If I didn’t have a dime,
Would you still be loving me?
While I spend my whole life through,
Drawing pictures just for you.
But I could never draw my love,
It’s so very hard to do.
Pictures in the sand,
Writing messages to you…”
I dance around with Landon in my arms. My grandson loves The Kinks? Naturally! Look where he’s sprouting. His tears stop. By the time Cassidy walks into our party, laden with her heavy college backpack, he is beaming.